As indie rock has grown to incorporate elements of electronica and pop, it seems like it has done so at the expense of gimmick-free guitar-based rock groups. A band that only has bass, drums and guitar that does not try to incorporate any particular genre or subgenre into its sound really has to make an effort to stand out.
Welsh indie rock group The Joy Formidable managed this when they released their debut The Big Roar in 2011. True to its name, most of its tracks featured lead singer Ritzy Bryan whispering at one moment and explosive riffs the next. The only subgenre it edged into was shoegaze, particularly on final track “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade,” but it was mostly just great, straightforward rockin’ out. Their 2013 sophomore album Wolf’s Law replicated much of the debut’s formula, although it removed any traces of shoegaze and included a few softer tracks. And while it still relied on heavy riffs and loud choruses contrasted with quieter moments, it also brought in more complex melodies on tracks like “Maw Maw Song.” Wolf’s Law might have had fewer defining moments than The Big Roar, but both albums were accessible, enjoyable listens with only the occasional misstep.
The Joy Formidable’s third album Hitch again shows the group’s prowess at creating consistently good no-frills indie rock. If anything, it’s their most straightforward release to date, forgoing both the added intricacies of Wolf’s Law and shoegaze touches of The Big Roar. At the same time, it’s a fairly ambitious album, with a runtime that goes just beyond an hour and two-thirds of its tracks lasting longer than five minutes.
Like its predecessors, Hitch is driven primarily by heavy guitars and manages to bring the riffs up to a new level. This album might not just be the band’s most straightforward – but also their loudest. Right off the bat “A Second in White” opens the album with a great deal of intensity, just in case you thought the softer parts of Wolf’s Law might have been their new direction. It’s a good song, yet seems like it’s over too soon. The same can’t be said for much of the other tracks, which as mentioned tend to run on the longer side. Frequently, the album goes into extended instrumental breaks reminiscent of the outro on “Whirring” from The Big Roar. Some of these are definitely justified, and the songs seem to breeze by. For instance, “Radio of Lips” features a lead guitar line that echoes Bryan’s vocals during the chorus, making it a real standout track on the album. Bryan goes into her now-trademark whispers during the mid-section of “Running Hands with the Night” before the song builds and bursts all over again, justifying its near-seven minute length.
Other times, they can get a bit self-indulgent and elicit an “alright, we get it” as they drag on. The actual album version (despite the title of the link above) of “The Last Thing On My Mind” opens with a full 35 seconds of demo track-style banter before the song actually starts, and just when you think it might end goes into one last guitar solo. Closer “Don’t Let Me Know” sounds like it could have ended a minute and a half early with little loss, attempting too hard to be an epic way to wrap things up. There’s a lot of greatness in Hitch, but the unedited jam session feel to it occasionally dilutes it.
Like Wolf’s Law, Hitch also highlights the band’s mellower side on some tracks. There’s nothing as overt as “The Silent Treatment,” and a couple songs seem to have a Celtic tinge. They are after all a very Welsh band, and recently released a song in Welsh. “Underneath the Petal” edges into this with its flute on the second half, while “The Brook” has a folk-rock quality to it. Otherwise, the milder parts are a mixed bag. The softest track “The Gift” only stands out because it’s the sole instance where bassist Rhydian Dafydd takes lead vocals, while “Fog (Black Windows)” finds a happy medium between pounding drums, scattered power chords and a light touch.
On that note, Matthew James Thomas’s drumming on the album is an unexpected standout. It frequently dominates the tracks as much as Bryan’s riffs, and really drives a lot of Hitch’s momentum. “The Last Thing On My Mind” opens with heavy drum and bassline reminiscent of Spoon, while “It’s Started” opens with a 45-second drum solo to amp you up. The slow-building “Liana” benefits from heavy snare from the outset to keep things moving before the guitar takes over.
It’s fairly difficult to not find something to like on Hitch. It’s an overall very solid release, even if it occasionally overstays its welcome. It doesn’t really venture in any new directions, even within the band’s own catalogue, but The Joy Formidable seem content not trying to ride the next trend in the indie scene. Instead, they seem to do the basics as hard as they can, which has worked out pretty well for them. Even if Hitch is a little too much at times, it shows that a band doesn’t need any sort of quirk to make a quality album.